Black women voters will be key to the November 2020 general election and one person who is perhaps more attuned to Black women and the campaign than anyone else is Sen. Kamala Harris.
As she prepares to become the first Black woman nominated to serve as vice president, Harris, a Democratic U.S. senator from California, is in the middle of a campaign that has included numerous nods to her HBCU alma mater, Howard University, her historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and to women in general.
At a campaign event earlier this year with Joe Biden, Harris acknowledged, “all the heroic and ambitious women before me whose sacrifice, determination and resilience makes my presence here today even possible.”
During Wednesday’s Democratic National Convention, several women will take the stage but it's Harris who will make history, formally accepting her party’s nomination under the evening’s theme of “a more perfect union.”
Here are some of the Black women who have broken ground in American politics and set the stage tonight for Harris to have this moment:
Mississippi native Fannie Lou Hamer fought for Black voting rights and women’s rights at a time when women — especially Black women — were typically not part of those activist spaces. Hamer’s life experiences, from picking cotton as a child to having a white doctor perform an unauthorized hysterectomy on her, fueled her unwavering drive to create change. She became an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and, in 1964, co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party. She also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. Hamer also pushed thousands of Black southerners to register to vote. She died in 1977 of breast cancer.
New York native Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman in Congress in 1968. She was also the first Black woman to seek the Democratic nomination for the White House. The title of her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, has evolved into a slogan meant to describe her way of practicing politics. The former schoolteacher who later consulted New York City on educational matters began her political career in the New York State Legislature, becoming its second Black representative. In the U.S. House, she introduced more than 50 bills aimed at healing poverty, attacking race and gender inequalities and addressing issues related to the Vietnam War. She died of stroke in 2005 and is entombed at Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery next to her second husband, Arthur Hardwick.
South Carolina native Charlotta Bass was the first Black woman candidate for vice president. Representing the Progressive Party in 1952, she told convention delegates, “I stand before you with great pride … For the first time in the history of this nation, a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land.” Bass also is believed to be the first Black woman to own and operate a newspaper in the United States. After moving to Los Angeles, she took control of the Black-owned Eagle under the wishes of its owner before his death. She changed the paper’s name to The California Eagle and widened its coverage to include police brutality and the Ku Klux Klan. She died of a a cerebral hemorrhage in 1969.
Atlanta native Cynthia McKinney was the first Black woman to represent Georgia in Congress. She served eight terms in the U.S. House, working alongside recently deceased congressman and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis. In 2008, McKinney switched parties and ran for president as the nominee for the United States Green Party. After the 2011 terror attacks, she was one of the most vocal voices advocating for investigations of unexplained events. She also pressed for the unsealing of FBI documents related to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Tupac Shakur. McKinney was known for her unconventional approach, courage and ability to balk at the established traditions put in place by the white men who came before her. Today, she is an assistant professor at North South University in Bangladesh.
Chicago native Carol Moseley Braun became the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1993 and was the first Black person to serve in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction representing Illinois. The daughter of a policeman and a medical technician, she became a federal prosecutor for the Chicago region and was an Illinois state representative for 10 years. In 1988, she became Cook County’s first Black recorder of deeds before moving on to the U.S. Senate. There, she advocated successfully against the perpetuation of the Confederate flag and frequently sparred with late segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms.
This year, Moseley Braun has been campaigning for the Biden-Harris ticket.
(L-R) Photo courtesy of Sen. Kamala Harris; Fanny Lou Hamer at 1968 Democratic Convention, Shirley Chisholm at Congressional election in Brooklyn's 12th District and Charlotta A. Bass, Progressive Party candidate for Vice President in Washington, DC in 1952 all from Getty Images.